The Futures of Food

When I was a kid growing up in the early 60′s, anybody could have told you exactly what the future of food was going to look like. We’d seen “The Jetsons,” toured the 1964 World’s Fair, tasted the culinary fruits (or at least fruit flavors) of the space program, and all signs pointed to a single outcome: the meal in a pill, washed down, perhaps, with next-generation Tang.

The general consensus seemed to be that “food”—a word that was already beginning to sound old-fashioned—was destined to break its surly bonds to Nature, float free of agriculture and hitch its future to Technology. If not literally served in a pill, the meal of the future would be fabricated “in the laboratory out of a wide variety of materials,” as one contemporary food historian predicted, including not only algae and soybeans but also petrochemicals. Protein would be extracted directly from fuel oil and then “spun and woven into ‘animal’ muscle—long wrist-thick tubes of ‘fillet steak.’ ”

By 1965, we were well on our way to the synthetic food future. Already the eating of readily identifiable plant and animal species was beginning to feel somewhat recherche, as food technologists came forth with one shiny new product after another: Cool Whip, the Pop-Tart, nondairy creamer, Kool-Aid, Carnation Instant Breakfast and a whole slew of eerily indestructible baked goods (Wonder Bread and Twinkies being only the most famous). My personal favorite was the TV dinner, which even a 10-year-old recognized as a brilliant simulacrum—not to mention an obvious improvement over the real thing. My poor mother, eager to please four children whose palates had already been ruined by the food technologists (and school lunch ladies), once spent hours in the kitchen trying to simulate the Salisbury steak from a Swanson TV dinner.

What none of us could have imagined back in 1965 was that within five short years, the synthetic food future would be overthrown in advance of its arrival. The counterculture seized upon processed food, of all things, as a symbol of everything wrong with industrial civilization. Not only did processed foods contain chemicals, the postwar glamour of which had been extinguished by DDT and Agent Orange, but products like Wonder Bread represented the worst of white-bread America, its very wheat “bleached to match the bleached-out mentality of white supremacy,” in the words of an underground journalist writing in The Quicksilver Times.

As an antidote to the “plastic food” dispensed by agribusiness, the counterculture promoted natural foods organically grown, and whole grains in particular. Brown food of any kind was deemed morally superior to white—not only because it was less processed and therefore more authentic, but because by eating it you could express your solidarity with the world’s (nonwhite) oppressed. Seriously. What you chose to eat had become a political act, and the lower you ate on the food chain, the better it was for you, for the planet and for the world’s hungry. Almost overnight the meal in a pill became a symbol of the forces of reaction rather than progress. The synthetic food future appeared doomed.

Though claims for the moral superiority of brown food have been muted in the years since 1970, the general outlines of this alternative vision of food’s future are no less relevant or compelling today. If the postwar food utopia was modernist and corporate, the new one is postmodern and oppositional, constructing its future from elements of the past rescued from the jaws of agribusiness. It goes by many names, including “slow food,” “local food” and “organic”—or, increasingly, “beyond organic.” Its agriculture is not only chemical-free but also sustainable, diversified and humane to workers as well as animals. Its cuisine (or, as it’s sometimes called, “countercuisine”) is based on traditional species of plants and animals—those that predate modern industrial hybrids and genetic modification—traditionally prepared. Its distribution system aims to circumvent the supermarket, relying instead on farmers’ markets and C.S.A.’s (community-supported agriculture)—farms to which consumers “subscribe” to receive weekly deliveries of produce. As for the consumption of this food, it too is to be overhauled, in an effort to recover the sociality of eating from the solitary fueling implied by fast food.

It’s a beguiling future in many ways, full of promise for our physical and social health as well as for the health of the land. It’s tasty too. So what’s not to like?

Plenty, if you’re one of those supermarket chains being circumvented, or an agribusiness corporation nervously watching organic foods gobble market share or, for that matter, if you’re a harried working parent who simply hasn’t the time or money for food to be any slower or more expensive than it already is. And so with one eye on that family’s predicament and the other on its own, Big Food has been hard at work developing a counter-counter food future, one that borrows all that it can borrow from the countercuisine and then . . . puts it in a pill. Or if not literally in a pill, into something that looks a lot more like a pill than the kind of comestibles we’ve traditionally used the word “food” to denote.

To thumb through the pages of Food Technology, the trade magazine for food scientists, is to realize that the dream of liberating food from the farm wasn’t killed off by the 60′s after all. The food-in-a-pill future has simply been updated, given a new, more natural and health-conscious sheen.

Food Technology offers a pretty good window on the industry’s future, and the first thing you notice when you look through it is that the word “food” is about to be replaced by “food system.” Which is probably as good a term as any when you’re trying to describe edible materials constructed from textured vegetable protein and “flavor fractions,” or “antioxidant bars” built from blueberry and flaxseed parts. (According to an ad for Land O’ Lakes, that company is no longer in the business of selling butter or cheese, but “dairy flavor systems.”)

The other thing you notice is that those “food systems” are rapidly merging with medical systems. The industry has evidently decided the future of food lies in so-called nutraceuticals and “functional foods”: nutritional products that claim to confer health benefits above and beyond those of ordinary foods.

The growth of the American food industry will always bump up against a troublesome biological fact: try as we might, each of us can eat only about 1,500 pounds of food in a year. True, the industry has managed to nudge that figure upward over the last few decades (the obesity epidemic is proof of their success), but, unlike sneakers or CD’s, there’s a limit to how much food we can each consume without exploding. Unless agribusiness is content to limit its growth to the single-digit growth rate of the American population—something Wall Street would never abide—it needs to figure out ways to make us each spend more each year for the same three quarters of a ton of chow.

The best way to do this has always been by “adding value” to cheap raw materials—usually in the form of convenience or fortification. Selling unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods is a fool’s game, especially since the price of agricultural commodities tends to fall over time, and one company’s apples are hard to distinguish from any other’s.

How much better to turn them apples into a nutraceutical food system! This is precisely what one company profiled in a recent issue of Food Technology has done. TreeTop Inc. has developed a “low-moisture, naturally sweetened apple piece infused with a red-wine extract.” Just 18 grams of these “apple pieces” have the same amount of cancer-fighting “flavonoid phenols as five glasses of wine and the dietary fiber equivalent of one whole apple.” We’ve moved from the meal-in-a-pill future to the pill-in-a-meal, which is to say, not very far at all.

The news of TreeTop’s breakthrough comes in a Food Technology trend story titled “Getting More Fruits and Vegetables Into Foods.” You probably thought fruits and vegetables were already foods, and so didn’t need to be gotten into them, but that just shows you’re stuck in the food past. We’re moving toward a food future in which the processed food will be even “better” (i.e., contain more of whatever science has determined to be the good stuff) than the whole foods on which they are based. Once again, the food industry has gazed upon nature and found it wanting—and gotten to work improving it.

All that’s really changed since the high-tech food future of the 60′s is that the laboratory materials out of which these meals will be constructed are nominally “natural”—dried apple bits, red-wine extract, “flavor fractions” distilled from oranges, resistant starch derived from corn, meat substitutes fashioned out of mycoprotein. But the underlying reductionist premise—that food is nothing more than the sum of its nutrients—remains undisturbed. So we break down the plants and animals into their component parts and then reassemble them into high-value-added food systems.

It’s hard to believe plain old food could ever hold its own against such sophisticated products. Yet while the logic of capitalism argues powerfully for the meal-in-a-pill food future, it is at least conceivable that, flaky as it might seem, the alternative food future has behind it an even more compelling logic: the logic of biology. The premise of the alternative food future—slow, organic, local—has always been that the industrial food future is “unsustainable.” In the past, that word has mainly referred to the industry’s impact on the land, which organic farmers insisted could not indefinitely endure the reductionist approach of industrial agriculture—treating the land as a factory, into which you put certain kinds of chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers) in order to take out others (starches, proteins, flavonoid phenols). Eventually, the land would rebel: soils would lose fertility, the chemicals would no longer work, the environment would grow toxic.

But what about the biological system at the opposite end of the food chain—the human body? It too is ill served by industry’s powerful reductions. Increasingly, there is evidence that breaking foods down into their component parts and then reassembling them as processed food systems is also unsustainable—for our health. It is not at all clear that the “healthy” ingredients we’re isolating function in isolation the same way they do in whole foods. Already we’re finding that beta carotene extracted from carrots, or lycopene from tomatoes, don’t work nearly as well, if at all, outside the context of a carrot or a tomato. Even in the pages of Food Technology, you now find nutritionists cautioning industry that “a single-nutrient approach is too simplistic.”

Foods, it appears, are more than the sum of their chemical parts, and treating them as collections of nutrients to be mixed and matched, rather than as the complex biological systems they are, simply may not work. Which probably shouldn’t surprise us. We didn’t evolve, after all, to eat phytochemical extracts or flavor fractions or mycoproteins grown on substrates of glucose. Rather, we evolved to eat that archaic and yet astonishing array of plants and animals and fungi that most of us are still happy to call food. Don’t write it off just yet.